Rather auspiciously, we commemorated the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing through a Hangout on Air interview with engineer Candy Torres! She gained a degree in astrophysics in the 1970s, where she was only one of seven women in her classes. Candy spoke about the challenges of following her career in science, which included gender exclusion and not having any women colleagues to support her education. Despite the gender and cultural barriers she faced, Candy walked into her dream job the day after graduating from university. Through networking, tenacity and a commitment to learning new skills, Candy went on to work on satellites, the NASA Space Shuttle & the International Space Station. She has been part of a team to make space exploration history. Watch the video or read more below!
Candy was a STEM trailblazer from an early age. She had a firm dream to join the space program, but she encountered much push-back in the Bronx, where she was born. Latina women were simply not meant to have a career in STEM, or so she was told, let alone dream of contributing to the space race. At age 14, Candy joined the Civil Air Patrol and she was flying a plane before she could drive. She encountered sexism early on, however, when she learned that girl cadets were not allowed to participate in some training sessions. She has previously told CNN: “We were supposed to go find a businessman who was lost in the woods, but the girls were not allowed.”
This attitude continued. At university in the 1970s, her classmates were less than welcoming of women. She tells CNN: “They were definitely not happy about having women in the class… I didn’t have any kind of support system. I didn’t get to know any of the other women, and the guys basically ignored me.” Candy tells Latino USA:
“When you’re first starting out you really have to know what you want and it’s not necessarily other people that are going to keep you from doing what you’re going to do, it’s yourself.”
Overcoming exclusion based on her gender and ethnicity, Candy would go on to use her computer programming skills to organise files for NASA. She later went on to work at the Johnson Space Centre on software for the Space Shuttle as well as the International Space Station. She worked on various other space programs over the years, such as human factors.
Candy has been featured in various high-profile publications like The Atlantic, where she noted:
“People don’t realise how many thousands of us worked on these programs… I loved being part of something big, and I knew that I had worked hard to be there.”
So how did she make it? In our Hangout with Candy, we went back to the beginning.
Women’s College: Support & Encouragement
Candy told us how, even though her Puerto-Rican parents supported her love of science, they were also at a loss as to how to directly guide her. This is where being based at an all-woman university helped transform her love of science into a career.
While Candy attended most of her science courses at Rutgers University in the USA, she was based at Douglass College, which is a woman’s college with a strong history in Liberal Arts and Humanities. Candy’s career counsellors did not know much about the specifics of her science degree, but they provided social and educational support at a time when family circumstances led to Candy contemplate the need to drop out of university. With their encouragement, Candy persevered, and to this day, she sees that women-only learning spaces play an important role in women’ education.
Candy also discussed how learning science at a time when women were a minority was even more tricky because of her Latin background. (Understanding the impact of several bases of social inequality along race, gender, sexuality, class, disability and other issues is known as intersectionality theory in sociology.) Candy noted that the competitive science environment was the antithesis of the Latin culture she grew up with, which was more community-centred and focused on mutual support. Candy reflected on how this community spirit can also make it difficult for Latin women who want to study science, as migrant families would prefer to have their children close to home. This is why Candy advocates that educators work on a more collaborative approach with parents and communities to better support the inclusion of Latino and minority youth in science.
Helping parents and communities see the various applied (practical) uses of a higher education degree is key. For example, promoting how science provides transferable skills in problem-solving, and how this knowledge can be put to use in new and innovative areas.
We talked about how important networks are to building a successful career in science. Candy recommends that students get talking about their passion to teachers and to use their social networks to let people know they are looking for mentors or for work in science. This is how Candy got her first job as a software engineer at Princeton University, and later in NASA – her professor remembered her enthusiasm for science and offered to act as a referee for a job.
Candy noted that “Women put themselves down..We don’t think we’re good enough,” although she did, fortunately. She credits her father for helping her self-esteem during tough times, and inspiring her through his memory after he died. Candy has continued her work in recent years by educating the public on space history, and supporting the inclusion of minority women in space programs. She is passionate about encouraging Latino youth to pursue engineering and science. Candy’s key message about forging a path in STEM is about networking to find the right mentors and opportunities.
Read more about Candy’s vivid recollections of being part of the space program on her website. Connect with Candy on Twitter and Google+.
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